M caught up with O'Sullivan in London to discuss his latest album, Gilbertville and to find out how he works and where his inspiration comes from.
Are the songs on Gilbertville about your life now or are you drawing on past events?
I’m drawing on whatever comes in to my head at the time when I’m writing. I love songwriting, I absolutely love it. If I didn’t write songs, I’m out. I like touring, it’s an important function if you make records, you can’t be making records and not getting out there – you need to be seen, but the point about it is, it’s all about the songs, without them I wouldn’t do it. I love the art of songwriting.
Can you tell us how you work?
I’m very disciplined, I’m writing music as well as lyrics. Oscar Hammerstein, the greatest lyricist with Richard Rodgers said: ‘everybody writes words, they write poems, they write letters, but not many people write music’ and it’s true to say if you looked at ten songwriters today and you looked at the credits you’d see there are a lot of other people credited, probably a lot of them only write words, so the music is the hardest thing.
So I sit at a piano five days a week, four weeks a month and like Irving Berlin I’ll trunk it, and then when it comes to making an album like Gilbertville I’ll decide ‘right, I need 12-14 songs’, I get the melodies out of the trunk and sit down with an empty notebook because I never complete a lyric that I’m not ready to deal with straight away. A good melody can survive 20 years, 30 years. McCartney wrote When I’m 64 when he was 13. However a lyric, if you’re the kind of lyricist that picks up on what’s going on in the world today and you leave it for five years then it’s going to be a bit out of date and I’m like that, I do pick up on what’s going on.
So there I am with an empty notebook and melody and it’ll take as long as it takes and it’s an absolute joy. After 45-50 years of doing it, success for me is finishing what I think is a good song. Everything depends on that. It might not sell a million but it’s very important to me.
I’m 65 as a person but as a songwriter I’m always that 21 year-old sitting at a piano. Technology doesn’t mean you write better songs. I have digital, but I don’t like it so I stick with cassettes, I’m a bit like Diane Warren. I stick the ghetto blaster on top of the piano, it’s got an in-built mic – the ghetto blasters today don’t have them but the 70s ones did. You put the cassette in, press record, if you get the tune you can wind it back, not like those bloody digital things, the noise they make - brrr! I stick with cassettes but they’re running out, it’s getting very difficult to get cassettes now. My daughter is saying ‘Cassettes, what the hell are they?!’.
Where do you write?
I have a music room upstairs at my flat. I work 9-5, it’s the Brill Building mentality. I know all about the Goffin and King, Greenfield, Sedaka all those people. I do this because when I came to London in 1967 I was a postal clerk in Victoria. There was a place off Regent’s Street called Weeks Pianos and it’s just a building that had rooms with pianos in them, that’s all it was. So you paid for an hour, half an hour. So I would get the bus there in my lunch hour. Pay my money, go into a little room and sit there and play. So that discipline continues today. I just have a room upstairs and I just go for it. It’s not boring, it’s important I work that way because I get the results. I’ve never had writer’s block, I don’t use rhyming dictionaries, I don’t like them, but I’m the kind of lyricist like a Springsteen or a Dylan. If you ever notice a Springsteen lyric, it always rhymes and Dylan always rhymes. It's because their pedigree is Tin Pan Alley, like Lennon and McCartney. Paul McCartney talking about his new album said that he and John Lennon used to like 1930s and 40s songs. That’s why they were brilliant songwriters because their background was from the great songs of that period. In essence that allowed them to write great things in a pop idiom.
The sound of Gilbertville seems to be classic O'Sullivan, apart from the subject matter, it could have been recorded at any point in your career - why is that?
What you will notice on records by my contemporaries, because I buy records by them - Paul Simon, Ray Davies - the melody becomes leaner, Paul Simon’s lyrics are as good as they ever were but melodically? He’s going off in areas sound-wise but the pure melody, if you compare an early Paul Simon song to now… that for me is what I want to avoid. So people have remarked that Gilbertville is reminiscent of my second album and it’s because all I’m trying to do is be melodic, that’s what’s missing. When I buy a Rihanna album I’m knocked out by the production, I love it – they make drums sound like heaven, that’s what I get out of it. I don’t get much out of it in terms of songwriting. Laura Marling – I like the way it’s produced, the lightness of touch and so on. So I buy everything to listen to what’s going on. I love Alison Krauss, Bombay Bicycle Club, Ron Sexsmith, The Killers, Elbow, Plan B.
I like the fact that people would say Where Would We Be Without Tea is a really nice melody – well great, that’s all I’ve ever tried to do, if I didn’t have that I’d be extremely frustrated. I don’t want to be lyrically interesting and musically banal.
You have to work for melodies because if you’re not getting a lot out of what you’re listening to now, there are some but it’s mostly sound production, then you go back. I’ll go back – 40s, 30s, 20s. I’ll go back to the birth of popular music to before Irving Berlin. I’ll try and get into opera, the stuff that influenced him – it’s melodically hugely strong but doesn’t have a nice sound to it, but melodically it can influence you as a composer.
Contemporary music is much more about impact, it’s dance-oriented and DJ-led. DJs are the kings at the moment, it’s pretty much just sound – but it’s great – all the kids love it, people go crazy, but there isn’t a lot if you were looking in terms of straight-forward songwriting. I love middle-eights, why do you do a middle-eight? Because you want to get away from the melody of the verse. It’s a break from the main melody and I don’t really see why that should change. I’m very happy in my craft to maintain that simple approach of a good melody over three or four minutes with hopefully a good lyric.
Read part two of this interview here.